Why the Lib Dems should avoid "confidence and supply"

Such a deal would satisfy neither supporters nor opponents of the coalition.

The idea of a "confidence and supply" agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, first mooted after the 2010 election, has re-entered political discussion after the almighty bust-up over House of Lords reform. The expectation on both sides is that the coalition will end in 2014, a year out from the next election, or possibly even earlier. Conservative MP Graham Brady,  the chairman of the 1922 committee, told Radio 4's Westminster Hour last night:

I think it would be logical and sensible for both parties to be able to present their separate vision to the public in time for the public to form a clear view before the election.

Of course, it is always possible that that moment of separation could come sooner. It's very difficult to predict when that might be.

The Lib Dems would then agree to support a minority Tory government in votes of no confidence ("confidence") and on any Budget (or "supply") measure.

It's arguable that the Lib Dems should have adopted such an arrangement from the start, rather than entered coalition with the Conservatives. Whilst Nick Clegg's party would still have had to support George Osborne's "emergency Budget" and the Spending Review, it could have avoided breaking its totemic pledge to cap tuition fees and could have voted against the government's NHS reforms.

But a confidence and supply deal with the Tories would now be the worst of all possible worlds for the Lib Dems. It would do nothing to placate those voters who despise them for propping up a Conservative government (indeed, this charge would have even more resonance), whilst antagonising those who believe they were right to enter coalition "in the national interest". Clegg's party would still have to vote for a Conservative Budget, brimming with welfare cuts, with even less guarantee of concessions elsewhere. A pact with the Tories would, to borrow a phrase, be a "miserable little compromise".

There are good arguments for the Lib Dems remaining in the coalition until 2015 and for them withdrawing completely before the next election. But there are none for entering the purgatory of confidence and supply.

Update: Academic Tim Bale, the author of the excellent The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, has alerted me to his research on the subject, which confirms that "confidence and supply" is frequently a curse for small parties.

The coalition is now likely to end before 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.